Opinion: Constitution protects rights, even during pandemic

James Lower

Why do we have a Constitution? 

A: We have a Constitution for times of peace and tranquility. 

B: We have a Constitution for times of war and emergency 

C: We have a Constitution for all times — good, bad and everything in between.

The answer is of course C. However, the Constitution is perhaps most important during times of war and emergency. During these times it serves to protect the people from government overreach, and even from themselves. 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt rounded up families of Japanese descent living in America — whether they were citizens or not — and took away their property and freedom, placing many in internment camps.

Most historians agree this was wildly un-American and unconstitutional, but it happened. As Americans we look back on this decision with sadness and embarrassment. Imagine the public outrage if President Bush had ordered the same thing for Arab Americans after the 9-11 attacks. It would have been an outrageous decision based on irrational fear. 

A very dangerous situation is playing out before our very eyes in the present day. Fear rules the hearts and minds of many Americans and their elected officials. Fear of the coronavirus for the public, and fear of making the wrong decisions and being blamed for people’s deaths for elected officials.

This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the United States Constitution with Articles V-VII.

The fear of making the wrong decisions and being blamed for the deaths of citizens has led to a near constant escalation of restrictions imposed by governors throughout the country. If one governor says everyone should stay at home until April 15, the next will say May 1 — then June 1, and so on. The extensions seem to be grounded more in fear than in science or practicality. 

This is the exact situation where our Constitution should protect us. The powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are all administered by mere mortals who live in the present day and are faced with present day pressures. Our constitutional rights, on the other hand, are not subject to present day pressures, public opinion or fear. They exist whether we are overcome with fear or not. 

There is no doubt the Constitution allows for a certain amount of emergency power for the president and governors. This power is supposed to be wielded for a short period of time and directly in proportion to the threat at hand. It does have limits. The point is — an extension of the draconian stay at home order we are all currently living under is not prudent, is not practical and almost certainly is not constitutional. In Michigan, the governor’s orders do not even reflect that some portions of the state are not nearly as hard-hit by COVID-19 as others. We cannot keep Americans locked in their homes based on fear.

When historians look back on these times, many of these restrictive orders will be viewed as an irrational, fear-based reaction that caused many families irreparable financial and emotional harm. It will also be viewed as categorically unconstitutional — especially given the other available remedies. 

I know many people would happily trade the protections our constitution guarantees for a stronger sense of safety and security today. They will likely be very angry with me for writing this. However, I swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of this state and this country, and I intend on upholding that oath of office.

No matter how scared or angry we are as a people, the Constitution is designed to protect us from that fear and anger. Without these protections, our system of government, the liberty we are supposed to enjoy and our constitutional republic would disappear forever.

Rep. James Lower, R-Greenville, represents the 70th District in the Michigan House.